Friday, April 21, 2006

Lisboa and Around

I was prepared for the food in Portugal to be mediocre, as a few different people had warned us, but nobody prepared us for the delights that we would feast on for breakfast every morning. The Portuguese certainly know a thing or two about their pastries, and so, of course, I had to do my best to sample them. The town of Belem, near Lisbon, is supposedly where the ‘Pasteis De Nata’ was invented. This is basically a eggy custard baked in a mini puff pastry shell. The top is broiled slightly and garnished with a sprinkle of cinnamon. Both times that I indulged in this bite sized treat, (a little more guilt-free in this small size..), the custard was still warm and slightly oozy, the crust flaky and the sprinkling of cinnamon, perfect. The custard was a little like cream brulee, but with a much eggier and richer flavor. (I know, is this possble?)

Then, when we ventured to this one patisserie for breakfast each morning, we were both hooked on these other pastries: if you are familiar with a palmier, think of two of these..basically a carmelized sugary and folded puff pastry, sandwiched together, with a thick spread of eggy custard. I noticed that this custard adorns most pastries shown in the cases..which I thought might be a little bit of overkill, but then, I tasted it for myself. Yum.

The pastries weren’t the only good food experience we had here. On a bit of a splurge, we treated ourselves to dinner at ‘Eleven,’ the first restaurant in Lisbon to gain the prestige of a Michelin star. Dining here was as much about the experience as it was about the food. The overall experience and ambience, of course, makes the actual dining a much richer experience than just grabbing a quick in-and-out bite to eat somewhere. It was incredibly good. And the service, again, incredibly good. We were both very impressed with the food and all the added touches the two ‘amuse bouches’, and a dessert appetizer.. Even the trolley of cheeses, aperitifs and baskets of bread were presented in an orderly and almost overly polite fashion. It was almost like the waiters were introducing us to their beloved grandmother, when they would wheel the carts to our table, see us eyeing it, and present to us…each cheese, each aperitif and each type of bread getting a lengthy introduction. Then, they would change out our silverware frequently, and for each ‘amuse bouche’, a new miniature fork and/or knife would appear, just for a moment while we consumed the ‘mouth tease’, then, they would disappear, with our emptied plates, barely a moment later. There is something really nice about going to dinner, in wrinkled clothes that you have been carrying around in a dusty backpack for 3 months, and yet, here, we were treated like royalty, no matter how musty we may have smelled. It was a drastic difference from our experience in Bellagio, when we were basically shunned for ordering only one ‘primi piatti’ each.

Enough about the food, Lisbon in general was a lot of fun to wander around. It is definitely not sparkling clean and new, by any stretch, but the city has a certain appeal and character about it. Some areas reminded me a bit of San Francisco…(there is even a “Golden Gate” look alike..) Areas like the Bairro Alto seemed a little bit sketchy at first, kind of like the Mission, but they were dotted with cool boutiques and funky restaurants, not the mention the great wandering streets and interesting tiled houses. The Alfama, was also an interesting area. It is the oldest area in Lisbon, with a Moorish influence and great views over the city and water. There are also the Baixa and Chiado districts, where the heart of the shopping was, as well as a bunch of sidewalk cafes and more sweet smelling bakerys. What I loved about the city too, were the sidewalks and streets. They are all or mostly cobbled, with decorative black and white chunks of tile. They look painstakingly time consuming to lay and down and to upkeep, but it added so much character and charm to the city, to see these designs in the sidewalks all over town.

We did get out of town a couple times, to see the outlying areas of Estoril and Cascais.. We have a good good family friend in Estoril, so it was so refreshing to see her, a familiar face, after all this time being in Europe. She was kind enough to treat us to lunch by the sea, in which we had some really great seafood, and good fresh cheese…I think the highlight for me, aside from visiting Beth, was coming back to her flat after a long walk along the boardwalk to Cascais and back, and smelling freshly baked cinnamon, chocolate and raisin cookies, as we climbed the steps to her flat. There is something so comforting about freshly baked cookies and tea, and visiting with a good family friend, who is pretty much like family to me. It was definitely a highlight for me. Thanks for taking us in for the day, Beth! 

No comments: